Written by Sophie Mayer
“Being a parent is like being in production 24 hours a day with no turnaround and more laundry. So it’s no wonder that making structural change around how parents (and children) and the family unit are regarded in society is a real challenge. The people most vested in change are the ones with the least time to do anything about it.” That’s how filmmaker, mother, and co-founder Hope Dickson Leach introduced Raising Films to the world on her Slog (like a blog, but harder). Raising Films is a group of UK-based film industry workers vested in changing the industry to offer sustainable working lives to parents and carers, across all roles. Actor and director Romola Garai told Raising Films: “I think that the deeply family-unfriendly working conditions of the film industry has the particular effect of sidelining the careers of women, and as a result we are in the position we are in where women are terrifically under-represented in all but a few roles in film and television.”
As a feminist film scholar and critic, I am excited to be a co-founder of Raising Films, along with Dickson Leach, screenwriter Line Langebek, and producers Nicky Bentham and Jessica Levick. I am childfree, but I see the effects that the lack of affordable childcare, as well as denigratory attitudes towards mothers at work have on male-dominated film journalism and academia, as well as filmmaking itself. As a feminist critic, I want to see more diverse storytelling, including the voices and ideas of parents and carers. For me, Raising Films is in line with the pragmatic, creative, and scholarly activism seen in role models such as Laura Mulvey, whose famous experimental film Riddles of the Sphinx includes meditations on childcare within the family and in the workplace.
Riddles was made in 1977: nearly forty years later, the same issues persist, as we’re hearing in testimonials and interviews with outstanding professionals from across the industry and around the world. Although Raising Films is UK-based, we know the film industry is transnational, so it’s crucial to talk across countries and industries, not only to share frustrations and solutions, but because we know our members work all over the world. One key observation has already arisen from these informal conversations, which presages the important findings to come: there are inventive, organized, creative parents and carers hard at work in the film industry internationally, whose working methods can be documented and shared. Some of the most celebrated female filmmakers are working mothers, such as Jane Campion, the only woman to win the Palme d’Or; and Susanne Bier, whose film In a Better World won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Bier told Raising Films: “I couldn’t have made the movies I made without having kids. There’s an element of reality-check that you’re forced to have when you have kids, which is very helpful in terms of storytelling.” As for how she managed it: “in Nordic countries… being a mum and working is not a contradiction.”
It’s that shift in cultural attitudes that we’re seeking, because the second key observation is that having a sustainable career as a working parent requires some or all of the following: affordable childcare, legislative support for parents and carers, social support networks, and/or flexible work hours. And these arise from positive, non-discriminatory individual and/or cultural attitudes to maternity. Marie-Hélène Cousineau, a co-founder of Arnait Video Productions, based in Igloolik in the Inuit province of Nunavut, Canada, commented that while “there are zero day-care centres or babysitters,” children are integrated into community life. “People come to the office, and of course they bring their children. If they didn’t, you would wonder what’s going on. So that became part of working in the office every day” – even when the office was a location shoot out on the ice.
While access to leave and childcare and carer relief affects people of all genders, it disproportionately affects women in every industry. A July 2015 report by the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission estimated that around 54,000 new mothers were losing their jobs across Britain every year. The UK Trade Union Congress Women’s Conference put forward a motion on childcare in 2014 that states: “Lack of affordable childcare is the most persistent and disproportionate financial disadvantage that women workers face, particularly single parents, 90% of whom are women.” While these figures are specific to the UK, they reflect on both persistent systemic sexism and the negative effects of the financial crash, as austerity policies have undermined social security in many countries. Class, ethnicity, ability, and migration status have exponential effects on mothers’ abilities to find and sustain work, particularly in a predominantly freelance industry such as film and television.
Director of Photography Catherine Derry argues that while freelancing offers some advantages – such as “off” times, in which a parent can be more hands-on, and some choice in when to take work – it lacks the safety net of salaried work. She recommends: “a fund of some type where you could get very low interest loans so that you could take a few months off when you have a baby, and pay the loan back slowly over a few years when you can afford it.” These are exactly the kind of ideas for industry change and policy that Raising Films wants to solicit and explore. “We have to make a stand,” says actor Alexis Zegerman, describing her involvement in the Camden campaign to retain local government funding for childcare places. “I think there are other ways for Camden to make cuts, or raise revenue, in their Children’s Centres. They do society a disservice if they think preventing women from going back to work is the way to go about this.
Many of the filmmakers speaking to Raising Films have noted the difference that being a parent can make to their practice, whether in practicalities or point of view. Working in the remote mountains of northern Pakistan, Afia Nathaniel, writer-director and producer of the mother-daughter road movie Dukhtar, found herself the only female crewmember on her first feature. She told us: “I don’t see myself as a director in terms of my career. That’s not my job, I’m a nurturer.” On our quest for a sustainably diverse cinema, Raising Films wants to tap into that connection between nurturing families and nurturing films. We hope you’ll want to be part of it, too.
There’s several ways that agnès films readers and members can be a part of Raising Films: you can join our community through our website, which offers parent/carer film workers a space for conversation and exchanging information, or you can follow us on Twitter (@FFFilmaking) or on Facebook. If you have a particular story to tell about your experience – positive or negative – we’d love to hear it! You can submit a testimonial via firstname.lastname@example.org. And to help us analyse, publicize and actualize all the creative solutions and ideas we are hearing, we are raising funds to hire a Project Manager, who will be fairly paid with flexible hours. If you can donate, visit our Indiegogo site, where you can see Dickson Leach’s sons describe what their mum does at work: “Emails… iPad… Smelly poos!” If that sounds familiar, then you’re part of Raising Films.
Click here to see Sophie’s profile.